Commercial Litigation is a demanding, often bruising, occupation. Trite, but true. When you convert that into serial class action defence then, oddly enough, you add a layer of drama that can gyrate from deadly serious endeavour to operatic Shakespeare to late afternoon soap opera in a single email.
It is an occasional pastiche of which David Williamson, the late Louis Nowra or perhaps even Margaret Atwood would be proud. Those who choose the profession are, and ought to be, taken to have accepted the risk that professional life will be intense and, perhaps more often than desired, high pressured.You might then think that all of this vocational noise would contribute to mental illness that stomps in, seizes the hapless lawyer by the throat and devours them to the gasps of onlooking family, friends and some vaguely observant colleagues.
Alas for the playwrights (and victims) - no!
In my own experience, years of the heady mix described above does not explode one day. That joy appears reserved for those whose coronary arteries and brain vasculature are weakened by the vices of poor diet, little exercise and way too much wine (South Australian, shiraz by preference). Instead, the resolute build-up of anxiety and stress over the decades catalyses a far more insidious outcome. There is no “ah-ha” moment. Well, there is when you are forced to stop and step away and seek help. Despite the intensity of practice, the onset of a permanent anxiety state and increasingly violent panic attacks creeps up on the all-knowing and ever confident and takes them down in almost complete silence.
So, you may not know because you cannot feel or see or touch the wound. You may not sense because your entire professional persona requires an outwards focus. It is to help the client, your colleagues, the Court and, hopefully, your children find a pathway through the morass. You may not question because it happens to others of less resilience, education or Firm based learning. You certainly do not ask for help because therein lies certain destruction. People will think you weak and pitiful and less efficient. You ignore the warning signs because they are so often hard to hear amidst the blare that you are trying to muffle or, to add some jurisprudence, quell.
When, and if, you reach the moment when you raise a flag and concede that you just are not coping then it will be those around you and in whom you have reposed your trust, friendship and love who should reach down to help you up. Surely? However, do they know or understand what they are looking at or for? Can they empathise when they themselves may not appreciate the same pressure and signs? The insidiousness of a mental breakdown is a communicable syndrome because it feeds on lack of knowledge and insight. If no one knows or describes or discusses what they are experiencing then no one will think less of them or be able to help. Our brains are, after all, quite clever in that way.
In late 2017 and early 2018, I reached that point and, with incredible support from those around me, found the space, time and professional assistance to work my way back from a place which seemed at the time to be a one way street out of town. In so doing I learned a lot about myself. I realised what some might regard as an intuitive truth. To know a thing is to name it. To name it and shine a light on it offers a potential level of response and, yes fellow OCD-ites, control. The ability to speak about anxiety, panic, depression, destructive and intrusive thoughts, hopelessness, fear and sadness with those with whom you work is, frankly, essential in our game.
In 2018 the CEP of Clayton Utz asked me to lead an initiative prompted (actually, violently required) by the demands of the Financial Services Royal Commission. A team of senior partners and managers was assigned to project manage the work we were doing for a highly exposed client through the entrails (fair if possibly a bit dramatic) of the FSRC. We acted for the Firm and in the interests of partners, our staff and, indirectly, the interests of our client to ensure that we delivered, as best we could, a world standard full-service legal product. All whilst under direct shelling. In short, to enable the teams that acted for the client to be able to do their job when it was completely and utterly all-consuming and mentally dangerous.
Possibly intentional on the part of the CEP, but hardly surprising then that I should view the leadership role I was afforded as a reason to intensely focus on the mental health and needs of a large part of the Firm engaged in that matter. The not so secret weapon - open communication. Engagement. Empathetic but also directive listening. A willingness to consider the person, not the professional stereotype. Confidence to call out behaviour, both great and self-destructive. In my view, that incremental albeit often accidental dialogue enabled me to share my personal experience (generally without using “I”). I could challenge the insidious brain driven plague that sits on the shoulder of the entire legal sector. Never have I been more satisfied than when the focus of my own experience was of use in working with others about their very present challenges.
Like most Netflix programs now, this brief reflection ought to have some dark ending that at least permits the exhausted writers to think up Season 2. In fact, in 2018 I was asked to assume the leadership of a Clayton Utz national practice group titled, wait for it, Commercial Litigation. Either the showrunners got something wrong, or there is actually a possibility that what does not kill you can, if you talk about it, in context, with others, about their situations, actually make you all the stronger. Well, a better lawyer at least. As for Season 2 - let’s wait and see.
Andrew Morrison, National Practice Group Leader - Commercial Litigation, Clayton Utz